Daniel Johnston didn’t exactly give it a Joe Namath “guarantee,” but it was the next best thing.
“He told us when we were freshmen that we would be a special team,’’ said Mike Muncy, one of five Mildred seniors who have a chance to make some school history at 7:00 p.m. Friday night when the Eagles face Jarrell in the Class 2A Area round of the playoffs in the Waco Midway gym.
No Mildred boys basketball team has ever won a second round game in the playoffs. Only two — the 1991 and the 1966 teams — had ever won a bi-district round game before this group of Eagles beat Centerville, 67-61, Monday in the first round of the 2A playoffs.
So this is some rarefied air for the Eagles, who have soared all year.
Of course, they expected it — thanks to Johnston’s prediction years ago.
“Coach Johnston was our JV coach when we were freshmen and he told us that we would have the opportunity to be here,’’ Muncy said. “He sparked us. He told us the expectations were there.’’
They believed him, and Johnston, who took over as the head coach when these seniors were sophomores, told them again when the season began.
“We lined up along the baseline on the first day of practice,’’ said Draylon Sterling, a senior who scored 19 against Centerville on Monday. “And he talked about the expectations for the year.’’
“He told us the expectations, and the first goal was to make the playoffs,’’ said Jase Butler, a senior.
No one mentioned being the first team at Mildred since 1965 to win the district title outright. There have been some Mildred teams that were co-district champs but the 2014 group won it all with 10-2 record in an incredibly competitive District 23-2A race. At the end, Mildred stood alone at the top.
All Johnston needed to say before the first district game was the single word, “fifth.’’
That’s where the Eagles were picked to finish in the six-team race. It upset Johnston and all his players.
“That was a huge motivation for us,’’ Muncy said. “It was kind of a disgrace.’’
At the end of the final district game of the season — a game Mildred needed to win — the kids shouted the word “Fifth!” When they broke the huddle. And after carrying it like a giant chip on their shoulder, they buried the talk of being fifth, and stormed into the playoffs — just as Johnston had predicted.
“I knew when they were in eighth grade that we had a good group of guys, and stacked guys (in the other classes) with four or five kids from that class down,’’ Johnston said. “I told them I would be their coach. There had been a lot of turnover in coaches here, and I told them I would be their last coach here.’’
He kept his word, and after going to the playoffs for three years in a row with Nic Shimonek leading the way, this team had to do it without super Nic.
“For the last three years we knew without a doubt we had the best player on the court with Nic,’’ Johnston said. “This year we know we have the best team on the court.’’
And off of it, too.
“The thing about this team is our chemistry is a lot closer,’’ Muncy said. “We hang out and are real close. We (the seniors) were already best friends and we hang out with each other. We know each other so well, on and off the court. We can read each other’s minds on the court.’’
The seniors said it wasn’t just the seniors, but that everyone was close, seniors, juniors, sophomores — everyone.
That close-knit chemistry has been a part of the run to the playoffs, and it has fueled an unselfish approach to the game that has been a huge part of the success. Two weeks ago Johnston asked his kids to vote for a team MVP
“They couldn’t come up with one,’’ said Johnston, who has seen just about everyone have a big game this season.
You could throw a cap over the top five scorers. It’s that close at Mildred, where sophomore Russell Holden leads the scoring with an 11.25 average and Muncy is second at 11.23. Sterling and Butler are averaging 10.5 points and Hill is scoring 9.7 points a game, and he is leading the team in steals (3.2), assists (5.6) and deflections.
Nine of Mildred’s 10 players have scored in double figures this season and seven have scored at least 15 points in a game. Five have scored 20 points or more.
Any of them can take over a game.
“I asked them to pick an MVP and they all picked a different guy,’’ Johnston said. “That’s pretty much been the story of the season.’’
The Eagles started slow. They finished third the Kiwanis Tournament, which they wanted to win, and that served as motivation as well. They lost in the semis to district rival Blooming Grove.
“I think the game that turned it around for us was the Blooming Grove game when we beat them here,’’ Sterling said of the first district meeting with the Lions. “That was the game that sparked our district run.’’
Hill hit a shot at the buzzer to beat Blooming Grove and Mildred’s confidence went sky high.
“We knew Blooming Grove was a good team. They put it to us in the Kiwanis,’’ Hill said. “We knew when we beat them we had something special. It really helped our confidence.’’
That close-knit chemistry has been a part of the run to the playoffs, and it has fueled an unselfish effort every night that has produced a statement season at Mildred. The Eagles (19-9) would have 20 games but a tournament they were in was called off due to bad weather.
“One of our goals was to win 20. One was to make the playoffs and win a game in the playoffs,’’ said Johnston, who changed everything when he got the head job three years ago. Mildred’s basketball players started playing spring and summer ball and now they play between 45 and 50 games in the offseason.
“That’s what the good programs do so that’s what we do,’’ Johnston said.
That’s where Mildred is today — one of the good programs. The Mildred kids meet a Jarrell team that knows all about winning in the playoffs, and the Eagles know they will be underdogs.
“They have been to the regionals a lot,’’ Butler said. “We haven’t so I assume when they walk on the court they will think they have the better team,’’ Butler said. “And everyone else will think the same thing. But it doesn’t matter. We know we will be the underdog.’’
“We like that,’’ Hill said. “We are used to being the underdog.’’
“We’re playing in extra time now, in overtime. It’s a bonus,’’ he said. “We’re going into this game to go all out and have fun and to win it.’’
Muncy added: “I have a lot of confidence in this team,’’ he said. “We have done something no team has done at Mildred since 1965. We’re going out and having fun, and we’re going to play our game and play hard. If we do that we can beat any team in the state of Texas.’’
Daniel Johnston didn’t exactly give it a Joe Namath “guarantee,” but it was the next best thing.
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